I Discover the South Island of New Zealand

Wednesday, 01 February 2012 07:24
Here I am about to take off in the Tiger Moth and fly over Wanaka Here I am about to take off in the Tiger Moth and fly over Wanaka

January 26, 2012

The South Island of New Zealand is quite unlike any other place on earth. The two large islands of New Zealand rose from the sea when the two tectonic plates that form the Pacific Rim clashed together, producing in the South Island a string of volcanoes running from north to south. All these volcanoes are now extinct but remain as high mountains. To the east, between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean, are the vast Canterbury plains, created from alpine sediment washed down the rivers. To the west the mountains fall steeply away into the Tasman Sea. Sail west from these shores into the teeth of the Roaring Forties and you will not see land until you reach Patagonia.

New Zealand frequently experiences earthquakes. On February 22, 2011 an earthquake destroyed most of the central district of Christchurch. On December 22, 2011, the day after my son Edward and I arrived from Sydney there were tremors in some parts of Christchurch strong enough to produce liquefaction where the ground turns to mud. By then we had picked up a car and driven to Banks Peninsula south east of Christchurch.

When Captain Cook sailed up the east coast of New Zealand in 1770 he saw the peninsula, thought it was an island and named it after the naturalist Joseph Banks. Two gigantic volcanic eruptions had formed the peninsula. Around its rim are a number of small harbours but a huge harbour was formed in the crater of a volcano. It is vast and deep, and its waters are the most exquisite turquoise. On its shores is the little town of Akaroa. We stayed there two nights in an apartment on the edge of the lake.

When we woke on the first morning we saw the large Australian cruise ship that had anchored in the harbour over night. This ship was too big to sail under the Sydney Harbour Bridge but, set against the sides of the crater and in the vastness of the Akaroa Lake it looked quite small. Boats from the cruise ship were ferrying some of the 2,000 passengers ashore. When I went shopping for a sunhat one of the passengers spoke to me. She was an elderly Australian woman, smoking a cigarette and walking slowly with the help of a walking frame. She complained that she did not know why her cruise included a visit to Akaroa Harbour. She said, 'There's nothing here but scenery.'

Our catamaran trip around the shores of the harbour and almost to its mouth showed us nothing but scenery. The crater walls loomed high above us. Streams of water leaped down the mountainside and fell as beautiful waterfalls into the lake. The tour organiser told us about the Hector's dolphins which had been almost wiped out by commercial fishing but now were protected. Their survival depended on them being able to breed successfully in Akaroa Harbour. Almost on cue a dolphin appeared, and then another and another, each with a baby dolphin swimming beside her. High above us on the steeply sloping mountainside sheep were grazing. Edward speculated about how many sheep would lose their footing, roll down the mountainside and crash into the water. We were assured by the young woman deckhand that this never happened. Neither did it happen to the shepherds who had to shear them. Instead, they would stand at the top of the mountain and whistle, and the sheep would come to them. Clearly New Zealand sheep are cleverer than Australian ones.

We had driven to Akaroa along the coastal road around part of the lake but that afternoon we took the road that runs around the rim of the crater. Again there was was nothing but scenery, glimpses of the turquoise lake at the end of a deep valley and in the other direction the blue Pacific.

The next morning we set off south-east across the Canterbury plain. The fields were covered with lush green grasses where sheep and cattle grazed. It was a fine, sunny day and without the strong winds that blow for most of the year. These are winds from Antarctica, fierce and unforgiving. On the windward side of the fields and around their houses the early settlers had planted rows of pine trees very close together. These now form high, thick hedges, all neatly clipped. Keeping the hedges clipped must be a small industry in itself.

Along the roadside and often spreading into the fields were flowers, blue, pink and white which I took to be lupins. When the road began to climb we stopped at one of the places so frequent along the country roads where there was a view, a bench and table, and a neatly kept toilet. Here there were the lupins, but now I could see them close up they were not like lupins at all. Whenever I have tried to grow lupins in my garden all the slugs and snails would fall upon them, making the most of a succulent meal. These New Zealand flowers had one tough, hard, upright stem, and the flowers that that hung from the stem looked equally tough. Snails and slugs that tried to make a meal of these would starve. I ceased to think of these flowers as being lupins and resolved to find out what they were called. A few days later a sheep farmer told me that, although these flowers bore no resemblance to lupins except in their height and colour, New Zealanders called them wild lupins.

When Captain Cook sailed up the east coast of New Zealand he saw from his ship a high, snow-topped mountain. He called it Mount Cook. We approached Mount Cook by way of a small town called Twizel. It was at the end of another huge lake, Lake Tekapo. Twizel had been built in 1968 to house the workers building a hydroelectric power station. The plan was to remove all the temporary housing when power station was completed. However, some of the workers and their families stayed on, perhaps because they got other work in the district and the houses were cheap. They might also have seen the tourist possibilities of the lake and the snowfields of Mount Cook. Now these portable cabins are snug homes, each with its own neat garden. New Zealanders have the prettiest, neatest gardens I have ever seen.

Mount Cook was 68k from Twizel. We drove alongside the lake, turquoise as all glacial lakes are from the 'rock flour' or sediment in it. We stayed at the Hermitage Hotel, loomed over by this magnificent mountain, the highest in New Zealand. Next morning I flew in a tiny ski-plane, a Pilatus Porter, up to the top of the Tasman Glacier. Edward knew the South Island well and had no need to make the flights that I made. We flew close to the mountain side and landed on the glacier. Walking on the glacier was like walking in thick, icy sand. Our pilot was a man well into his fifties. He told me that he had the best job in the world and was amazed that he was being paid to do it. Then he said that the glaciers around Mount Cook were retreating. Tourists come to Mount Cook to see the glaciers and to ski. If the glaciers continue to retreat and the snowfalls continue to diminish the tourists will cease to come.

The New Zealand economy depends on tourists and exporting lamb and beef. Even before the economic crisis of 2008 the economy was not doing well. By far the majority of tourists we encountered were from Japan, Hong Kong and South East Asia. Tourist businesses were being run with the minimum staff. On each of the ferry trips we did the young woman who ran the cafe doubled as a deckhand, casting off and tying up. At the apartment we stayed in in Queenstown the receptionist told Edward that in previous years their customers would get their own breakfast in their apartment but go out to a restaurant for dinner. Now their customers, like us, were cooking all their meals.

We headed for Queenstown on Lake Wakatipu where we would spend Christmas. On the way we drove through the small town of Cromwell, a gold-rush town from 1862. When the Clyde Dam was built in 1992, thus entailing the flooding of the town, the historic buildings were disassembled and rebuilt on higher ground. Now the area is famous for its wine. We can attest to just how good the wine is.

Queenstown is on the shores of Lake Wakatipu and is a holiday destination for New Zealanders themselves, especially very active New Zealanders. You can go bungy jumping, caving, white water rafting, sledging, jetboating, skiing, skydiving and hang gliding. Or you can sit quietly and look out over the lake to the Remarkables on the other side.

The Remarkables form the end of a high plateau but from our apartment on the lake I had no sight of the ski resort on the plateau. The Remarkables are like a heavy stage curtain. In the middle of the day they looked like the side of a mountain covered with low scrub but morning and evening their texture changed in the changing light. Sometimes they seemed to be made of black velvet.

On Christmas Day we joined the TSS Earnslaw to sail across the lake. The ship was built in Dunedin In 1911, then the parts numbered and taken apart. Each piece was carried by train to Kingston on the southern end of Lake Wakatipu where the ship was reassembled. The TSS Earnslaw worked commercially transporting sheep, cattle, goods and people around the lake. Now she carried tourists across the lake to Walter Peak Farm. At the farm we watched a demonstration of how to shear a sheep and enjoyed an afternoon tea of cheese scones and pikelets with jam and cream, and tea served to us from great big pots. New Zealanders, it seems, have no time for that pernicious habit found elsewhere of presenting the tea drinker with a mug of hot water and a tea bag. Every cup of tea we had in New Zealand was a good cup of tea.

Next day, Boxing Day, I flew in a small plane over and down through the mountains to Milford Sound on the west coast. It landed on a small airstrip at the head of the sound. Here were several ferries that toured the sound.

Milford Sound is not a sound but a fiord, that is, a long, narrow inlet with steep sides or cliffs, created in a valley carved by a glacier. We were told that the west coast was suffering from a drought - it had not rained for 14 days. I found that the exact figures for how much rain the west coast got depended on who was telling you, but, whatever the figures, it was a lot. We were lucky to be there on a fine day and so could actually see the sound with its waterfalls, dolphins and seals. By the time we came in sight of the mouth of the sound there were white caps on the waves and the boat began to rock. Just as we were being told about the dolphins, in this case the common dolphin which is bigger and more common than Hector's dolphins, the dolphins appeared, thus providing the essential experience of having your photograph taken with a dolphin swimming by. It seemed to most of my fellow tourists that a picture of a beautiful or remarkable place, animal, fish or bird was valueless except as an opportunity to get your picture taken.

On December 27 we drove to the most northerly tip of Lake Wanatipu to the little town of Glenorchy. From a distance it seemed that a mist was rolling in over the town but this proved to be rock flour picked up by the wind. The white-tipped waves suggested that bad weather was on its way but instead the fine weather continued. There was high pressure over the South Island all the time we were there. In the North Island the rain fell heavily while along the east coast of Australia La Nina continued to bring rain and high humidity.

Next day we drove through Kingston, past the quietly mysterious Lake Manapouri to Te Anau on Lake Te Anau. This town mark the boundary between the pastoral areas of Southland (the southern part of the island) and the heavily forested mountains of Fiordland. Our plan was to drive to Milford Sound the next day. Despite the coachloads of tourists going to and from Milford Sound it is an extraordinary drive. At first the road runs beside Lake Te Anau and alluvial flats and meadows. Then it starts to rise to the pass known as The Divide. We were now on the western side of the mountains. Ahead was the Homer Tunnel, underneath the Homer Saddle.

Following the principles of Maynard Keynes during the Depression in the 1930s the New Zealand government employed men on the dole to build the Homer Tunnel. The plan was to build something that would be useful to the public, create jobs and stimulate the economy. Such ideas are anathema to the Chancellor George Osborne. He is determined to bring down the national debt by cuts to public services, not by creating jobs. The national debt is now over 1 trillion. Building the tunnel was hard work and very dangerous because avalanches of rocks, trees or snow were frequent. Work on the tunnel stopped during the Second World War but started again soon after the war. The tunnel was completed in 1954, thus making the west coast accessible to farmers, fishermen and those blessed creatures, tourists.

We joined a queue to wait our turn to go through the tunnel. I got out of the car to watch the people behind us doing something they were not supposed to do, that is, feed the kea. Kea are parrots which, unlike other New Zealand parrot species, are not at all shy. They will eat anything they are offered and anything they can steal.

We went through the tunnel and ahead was the Cleddau Valley where the Cleddau River plunges to the sea . To say that the sides of the valley were thickly wooded is an understatement. The west coast had the most thickly wooded mountainsides that either of us had ever seen. So close together are the many varieties of trees and shrubs that anyone who wanted to get through them would have to hack every inch of their way.

At the head of the sound we parked the car and walked down to the jetty at Sandfly Point. The sandflies had ignored me on my first visit and they did so again, but they recognised Edward as a walking feast. Although he was well covered in a long sleeved shirt buttoned to the neck, jeans and trainers, the cunning little flies managed to creep inside and bite him, leaving large red lumps behind. Insect repellent made little difference.

The drought had ended only 12 hours before we arrived but the waterfalls had already burst into life, sending their spray over us as the ferry pulled close for the ritual of taking pictures. The dolphins were there (do they get paid to perform?) but the seals were as sleepy and unimpressed by tourists as ever.

Next day we drove south and then turned east, through little towns, heading for Invercargill. This was the first time in the South Island that I seen had houses in need of being painted. On this island of high winds, houses, especially wooden houses, would need frequent painting, and that would cost money. The unpainted houses suggested that this was not the richest part of New Zealand.

Before having lunch in Invercargill we drove out to the Bluff, the most southerly point I had ever been in the world. Long curving beaches of golden sand, surf rolling in, turquoise water and further out deep blue. Nothing between us and Antarctica. Lying on the rocks was the largest seaweed I had ever seen.

Invercargill had a wide main street like an Australian country town but even the sleepiest of those towns would have been busy compared to Invercargill on a Friday afternoon. Most of the traffic on the main street was 1950s cars being driven up and down the street. I had gathered from the New Zealand media that older people deplored the way 'the youth of today' were influenced by America. Here were young people harking back to the 1950s. Had they been watching the 1950s films? To me, who had been there, the 1950s were the most boring, constricted time ever.

The main street had a free public toilet. Edward tried it and then insisted that I try it too. I pressed the button, the door opened, I went in and the door closed behind me. Darth Vadar's voice told me that the door was looked and that I had no more than 10 minutes in there. Whether I was finished or not, in ten minutes the door would open and leave me exposed to the street. Fortunately I needed less than ten minutes.

We left the excitement of Invercargill and drove north-east to Gore where we stayed in the Heartlands Hotel in Croydon, just outside Gore. It had been built in the 1960s and in the UK would have been listed or pulled down by now. The main part of the hotel consisted of a long concrete platform on thick concrete pillars. Cars were parked under the platform. Two floors of bedrooms rested on the platform. Reception and the dining room were in a separate prefab building. There were no lifts to the bedrooms. New Zealanders in the 1960s must have been strong and healthy.

Next morning we headed for Dunedin on the Presidential Highway. This is the road that runs from Gore to the next town called Clinton. Dunedin is a city of steep hills going down to the sea. In the business district a large statue of Robbie Burns presides over the garden in the middle of the Octagon roundabout. It is not difficult to guess who settled this part of New Zealand. We parked the car and walked down hill to the pretty Edwardian railway station where a young man in a kilt was playing the bagpipes. Once a day two tourist trains leave from the station, one going down the coast and one north to Middlemarch. We had lunch in the cafe in what had been the waiting room and then set off for the Otago Peninsula. We drove along the shore, through Portobello, and up the south head. Looking back we could see the sand bar that almost blocked the entrance to Otago Harbour and, on the ocean side of the sandbar, the new harbour that had been built for cruise ships. We took the high road back to Dunedin, dropping down St Kilda Beach. To us the surf looked treacherous but there were people swimming on a sandy spit where some good body surfing waves were coming in. However, on both sides of the spit were rips that would give the unwary surfer a fast ride to Antarctica. We checked into an apartment on the side of a steep hill. It had a good view across the city to the sea but, best of all it had a very efficient washing machine and drier. Each of us had run out of clean clothes.

Volcanoes, no matter how old, leave a lot of debris behind. Middlemarch is backed by the Rock and Pillar Range. The road there is across a flat plain scattered with rocks, some singly, some in outcrops that from a distance seem like the remains of a fortified medieval castle. Here and there we caught glimpses of the train line. This ended at Middlemarch. From there on train track had been turned into a cycleway. It was a relief to see cyclists on a safe track instead of riding up or down precipitous roads or clinging to the edge of a narrow winding road close to the cars that sped by. Is it only masochistic men who take up cycling?

We headed for Alexandra and then to Cromwell and then north on the west side of the lake to Wanaka on the southern tip of Lake Wanaka. This had been a quiet alternative to Queenstown but now it was becoming very popular. We stayed at a hotel where where the elegant gardens ran smoothly down to the lake shore. The next morning instead of setting out immediately for the Fox Glacier, Edward said he would like to see the airport where there were some old planes. He pulled in beside a hanger with the name Classic flights. He had planned another flight for me, this time in a Tiger Moth. These small biplanes played a significant part in the Second World War because they were used to train pilots to fly. From the top of the back steps our house in Newcastle I could look across the Newcastle airport, which was little more than a landing strip, and watch the Tiger Moths taking off and landing. I was sure that one day I would go up in a plane. I knew about the women pilots in the 1920s and 30s who did so much to make flying popular. These early planes, like their successors, did not require strength to fly them but they did require the pilot to be skilled in multi-tasking. Amelia Earhart in 1928 was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. In 1937 she disappeared somewhere over the Pacific. In 1930 Amy Johnson was the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia. In 1941 she crashed into the Thames Estuary while delivering a newly built plane from the factory to an RAF base. My parents often talked about these women. My mother thought that flying a plane was, for a woman, some kind of immoral activity.

The manager of Classic Flights in Wanaka admired these women pilots and kept photograph of them on his desk. I was introduced to Ivan, the pilot, who helped me into a fur lined leather flying jacket and a helmet. My plane was the ZK-ALJ, a vintage DH82a Tigermoth. It had been built in 1938 in Cowley in the UK and assembled in New Zealand. It entered the service of the RNZAF in 1942. After the war it was owned by a series of Tiger Moth enthusiasts, passing at last to Classic Flights.

I climbed into the front cockpit and Ivan strapped me in. He told me not to be concerned sometimes the plane rolled or dropped (I would have been surprised if it had not). We taxied to the end of the runway and took off, up over Wanaka and the lake. We did a long loop over the lake and back to the airstrip where we landed. When I entered the hanger the manager presented me with a flight certificate signed by Ivan and Edward gave me a silk (not real silk) scarf to wear on my next flight on a Tiger Moth. I shall be flying back to London on an A380, which is somewhat large than a Tiger Moth. I could wear my silk scarf then.

Now we were on our way over the Haast Pass to the Fox Glacier. The pass itself is snow country, covered in tussock and scrub and open to the winds. We were now in the Mt Aspiring National Park that has World Heritage status. Here there are enormous stands of rainforest and large areas of wetlands, home to New Zealand's unique flora and fauna. The road followed the Haast River almost to the sea. We turned north along the winding road until we came to the little township of Fox Glacier. The motel we stayed in was functional but from our back door were could see the western side of Mount Cook peering down at us over the mountains.

Unlike the glaciers on Mount Cook, the Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers are not retreating. These glaciers were travelling fast, that is, fast for a glacier, down the mountain and almost into the sea. Only their moraine lay between them and the sea. The next morning I flew in a helicopter to the top of the Fox Glacier. We landed but could not stay there for long because the clouds that often hung around the western side of the mountains were thickening. On our way up the mountain the pilot had seen some hikers on the glacier. On the way back he told us he was concerned for their safety. Back at the helicopter pad we passengers got out quickly and the pilot immediately took off to pick up the hikers.

We then set out on our longest drive, from Fox Glacier to Christchurch. We did not linger long at the Franz Joseph village. Franz Joseph Glacier has become trendy while the Fox Glacier is not. We drove north up the coast and, just before Greymouth, we turned east and up the mountains to Arthur's Pass. The village of the same name is the highest settlement in New Zealand. The cafe where we stopped for lunch was full of people in damp anoraks. Outside a man was sitting eating a sandwich. He looked away to speak to a friend and the kea perched in the edge of the roof above him swooped down and stole his sandwich. The man looked around greatly puzzled.

We drove down the mountains and left the wilderness behind. We crossed the Canterbury plain and headed for our motel near the airport in a quiet, orderly suburb. Our plane did not leave until 5pm the next day so, after we had checked out, we drove along the south side of the bay. Many houses, quite modern expensive houses, had been built on the high hills behind the south. In places the side of the hill had crumbled, taking the houses with it. In one place the hill had fallen into a primary school playground. Fortunately the children were not in the playground at the time. Sightseers are still not allowed into the centre of the city where the damage was greatest. Many buildings are still in the process of being carefully dismantled, in most cases a dangerous proceeding. New Zealand newspapers I had read often carried stories of how many of the people who had left Christchurch after the earthquake were now returning. These articles seem to have been written more in hope than certainty.

Our vanity often leads us to believe that our species has conquered the planet. The beauty and danger of the South Island shows that we have not done so and never will.

Last modified on Wednesday, 01 February 2012 12:26